Dvar Torah: Parashat Vayikra

94 Days Until Camp!

Vayikra – March 19, 2010

Pray? Davey
Rosen, Assistant Director

This week we begin the book of
Vayikra, Leviticus, also known as Torat Kohanim, the Laws of the Priests,
because the book deals largely with the laws of animal sacrifices that were
brought to the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting.  God explains the different
sacrifices, and a structure is put into place for the people of Israel to atone
for guilt and for sins.  Guidelines are established in order for the
people to have a relationship with God.  Historically, in traditional Jewish
communities, young children begin studying Torah with Vayikra.  My
question is why?  Why, with the Torah's countless teachings on justice and
loving kindness, are animal sacrifices the first topic the rabbis suggest we introduce
to children?

In Vayikra the people of Israel are
introduced to the system of worship that they will adhere to until the
destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.  Animal sacrifices were not
done frivolously; there was meaning and intention in the structure of worship
that was guided by the Priests.  Just as there was meaning in the system
of sacrifices there is meaning in our system of worship today, there is a
reason to pray.  But why, why pray? 

It is possible that this question is not asked by half of the Jews in the
United States.  Jewish prayer is foreign to the majority of American
Jews.  Only 46% of Jews belong to a synagogue.  Very large segments
of the American Jewish community are not familiar with the rituals and customs
of the synagogue; specifically the siddur and Jewish prayer.

Abraham Joshua Heschel explains that
the siddur is part of the Jewish cannon, the core of Jewish culture and
civilization is the Tanakh, Talmud and siddur.  The siddur, according to
Heschel, provides the language for Jewish living.  Michael Rosenak, a professor of Jewish
education at the Hebrew University, says language allows for cultural
expression and enhancement and those who have a grasp of language can make
literature within that culture.

Absent from the lives of millions of
Jews is the siddur, a core text that provides the language to live a Jewish
life.  It is very difficult, if not impossible, to experience Jewish life
if it excludes the synagogue as at least a component of that experience; for it
is in the synagogue, in community, that we most often read the siddur.

Why is prayer so fundamental to
Jewish culture and civilization? Because the core Jewish texts are alive in
Jewish prayer.  As Heschel explains, “Prayer as an episode, as a cursory
incident, will not establish a home in the land of oblivion. Prayer must
pervade as a climate of living, and all our acts must be carried out as
variations on the theme of prayer.”

It is prayer that compels us
to live the Jewish texts; to act, to clothe the naked, to free the imprisoned
and to raise the downtrodden. As well, Heschel teaches, “A deed of charity, an
act of kindness, a ritual moment – each is prayer in the form of deed. Such
prayer involves a minimum or even absence of outwardness, and an abundance of
inwardness.”  Prayer calls for deep, personal reflection. People must
reach inside themselves; discover what it means to have been implanted with
eternal life (chayye olam nata b’tochenu), and to go out and act.

In Vayikra, we are introduced
to ancient Israel’s method of worship; a system is created for our ancestors to
have a relationship with God, to reflect and to unite with their
community.  Why introduce such concepts to young children?  Because
today we do not sacrifice animals, today we pray, and it is in prayer that we
reflect and we can find ourselves. It is in our synagogues and at Camp Ramah
where we pray and we learn how to live the Jewish texts and it is in prayer that
we are provided with the means to do nothing short of changing the world.

Categories: Assistant Director